The Crimson Wing: Matthew Aeberhard and Leander Ward
For Disneynature’s first project, wildlife directors Matthew Aeberhard and Leander Ward went to Tanzania to capture the untold story of flamingos. They spent 13 months filming at the isolated Lake Natron and witnessed 1.5 million flamingos flock with the sole purpose of breeding.
LOVEFILM: What did you think of flamingos before filming The Crimson Wing?
Leander Ward: Two very different answers here because I’m not an ornithologist. I think birds are cool; they are beautiful things that can fly. That’s a very romantic point of view that I have. When I first encountered flamingos I was in Mexico; it was the first time I ever pointed a camera at a bird.
Matthew Aeberhard: I’ve spent most of my working life in East Africa, so I’ve made regular trips to great nature reserves and flamingos have always symbolised total wilderness to me. They are engaging, interesting creatures that form a massive spectacle in just one location. Nothing much is known about them scientifically - they pose questions which I like.
LF: How did you first hear about the mating rituals of the flamingos at Lake Natron? What happens there is rather unique…
MA: I knew that this was the key location for flamingos in Africa, 80% of the world’s population of flamingos breed at Lake Natron. We were pretty much the first people to spend any real time in the middle of this lake, filming it in detail. We have a spectacle with a million birds breeding and no one knows anything about it. Right next door is Serengeti National Park where you have a million and a half wildebeest and there is a huge tourism industry. I mean it’s just bizarre.
LF: At what point did your involvement with Disneynature start?
LW: We explored various options for funding it. We knew we were pitching to the feature film industry and not the wild life film industry, so we felt it was important to get somebody who had a good presence in that world. We started talking about the project in 2005.
MA: We developed the film way before The March of The Penguins. It originated from a completely different place.
LF: How long did you spend filming at Lake Natron?
MA: We were filming for 13 months; 75 minutes a day of top wildlife footage. It was hard work.
LF: What was it like filming in the conditions there? Did you struggle with the heat?
MA: When you’re out on a salt flat, it gets uncomfortable and the salt gets everywhere, your clothes start to literally solidify.
LW: Your skin starts abrading; it’s painful but it’s the privilege of being there. You have all these intimate scenes unfolding and you’re watching.
LF: What difficulties did you encounter? I can imagine filming on the salt sheets wasn’t easy.
MA: The main challenge for the production was how do we get out to the salt flats in the first place and how do we get close enough to the flamingos to film them without disturbing them. We used a hovercraft to deliver material onto the salt flats. There are areas which are very treacherous because the ground is like sharp concrete, it literally kills the skirt of the machine and shreds it to pieces. How do you get round that? (Laughs)
LW: It was a great benefit for filming -it’s one of the smoothest vehicles to have your camera on a tripod and film the birds flying alongside you.
LF: You must have become pretty attached to the birds. Was it difficult to sit back and watch the chicks’ struggle with salt shackles or being killed by the marabou birds?
LW: It’s exciting as well as being sad. When it came to the Marabou’s attacking, we can’t scare them away because we’d perhaps scare all the flamingos away. You have to let nature do its thing.
MA: People want to engage emotionally with the story. This is one of the lessons that nature teaches us, about the regenerative power of nature. Some people are saddened to see these events but also pleased because these events are essential to a dramatic story.
LF: Mariella Frostrup narrates the film in a very poetic, storytelling fashion. Why did you decide on that style?
MA: Cinema is about story. We didn’t want this to be a biology lesson; we made that distinction very early on. Something that people could attach themselves emotionally to. It was one of the hardest things to do, as people expect a certain thing from a wildlife film, they expect David Attenborough.
LW: The major choice behind Mariella narrating was that we wanted someone that had an authoritive voice who could read poetic lines with conviction. Her voice wasn’t too feminine.
MA: We tried male voices but they all ended up sounding like David Attenborough. We love David but you see that on television.
LF: Towards the end of the film the narration picks up on certain birds’ individual journeys, by using ‘she’ or ‘her’ as the narrative thread. Was that an idea you had whilst filming, or did that happen afterwards?MA: That was Melanie’s (Melanie Finn, writer of The Crimson Wing and Aeberhard’s wife) idea. What we’ve hopefully done with this film is to tell a simple story that young people can engage with, on a simple level. It’s a coming of age story, we needed to try and identify individual stories. We didn’t want to give these flamingos’ names; ‘she’ could be implied to any number of flamingos. We’re not saying it’s the same one, we’re saying it could be the same one if you want it to be.
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